17 Oct 2013

Battle of Frigidus 394 AD

It is 394 AD and a new world order is slowly creeping in on ancesters of proud roman citizens and subjects. People living in regions of Venetia et Histria, Noricum, Dalmatia and Pannonia still vividly remember the battles of last civil war, where Eastern emperor Theodosius has defeated army of a western usurper Magnus Maximus in battles of Siscia and Poetovio in 388 AD.  After the battle Maximus was executed, but his army was largely spared, as Rome was lacking soldiers even without the constant civil wars. Arbogast, Theodosius military commander has personally hunted Maximus' son and had slained him.
Few years later, players have changed. Arbogast himself was probably involved in alleged "suicide" of western emperor Valentian II, who was found hanging in his villa in 392. Arbogast, by role a protector of said emperor, was said to have been in conflict with Valentian for quite some time now, as he has been showing the appetite for power himself! After Valentian's death, Arbogast has named a former teacher of grammar and rhetoric, Eugenius. While Eugenius was himself christian, he was to be the last roman emperor fighting for the old, pagan gods that roman senate supported.

Theodosius still hasn't forgot about the close ties he had with Valentian's dynasty and has decided to march to war if necessary in order to return the throne to the "righteous" rulers...at that point that would be one of his underage sons. In Constantinople, he has gathered 100,000 headed (which means "a lot" and was probably much smaller) army of battle hardened roman legions and cavalry, supported by goth foederati, three-etnic (hunic, alanic, gothic) cavalry with fearsome mounted archers and even heavy cavalry from the east! As he went to march up Balkan peninsula towards Italy,  Arbogast was on the move with his western army, supported by frankish mercenaries, to meet him on a field chosen by himself.

Arbogast, a military commander with years of experience has decided to leave the great walls of Claustra undefended (look at previous post if you don't get the reference:P), but he has left small detachment of troops in great fort of Ad Pirum, to delay the eastern attackers long enough to buy him time to sneak a detachment of his own troops behind their backs and surround the eastern army!

He has set up his line on river, cold enough to be called Frigidus ("cold river"),  close to Castra (marked with red on the map). He has hoped the limited space the valley provided and narrow roads, leading to the valley from Ad Pirum would both stretch eastern army and then prevent it from deploying to full potential. Lack of manouvering space should also prove beneficial against eastern mounted archers, the best troops world had to offer at that time!
Eastern army had no real difficulties assaulting lightly defended Ad Pirum, but once they finally broken into the fort, the defenders were all gone! Theodosius' cavalry had to cease the pursuit as rushing in narrow wooded area in dusk could prove fatal if ambushed! Instead, Theodosius has reorganised his troops and continued the push towards west. His army was prepared, expecting an ambush at any time!

After couple of hours of walk, they've came down the steep hills into valley, dominated by fluvium frigidum, the cold river.

[time for the facts now :D] Here is a photo of the valley I've found on the net (so it is not mine). I have added the coloured lines and boxes.
Now, there is no archeological site that would prove the battle took place here, but it is the most widely accepted place. Alternative is river Soča (Isonzo), further west, where Isonzo front was fought in WW1.
The only way from Ad Pirum to Vipava valley, as valley is called today, is by forest road that comes in valley roughly where that big purple arrow is. This is the expected direction from where eastern army would have came.
The bigger green rectangle, just next to the arrow is city of Vipava, there are no accounts of it being there in 394. In the box is Vipava's barracks, where I lived during my boot camp, so I know the area :D. If we imagine this place 1500 years back, forest from east would probably be extended in the valley. And river Vipava, which is probably Frigidus (blue rectangle) would be wider (but probably quiet shallow) and area around it would be marshy.  From Vipava to Ajdovščina (other green rectangle), where Castra (fort) was, is about 10-11 kilometers.
Yellow rectangle shows location of lovely zemono villa, sitting on a little hill covered by vines. It is a dominating spot in the valley itself.  Orange line is thus a most widely accepted location of western army's palisades. Given the army could be as large as 50,000 men or so, the line could be perhaps extended from river's marshes all the way to castra, which would make sense. Pink line is alternative battle location. There, line is shorter, would be flanked by marshes and castra and to me, it makes even more sense.

Another thing I'd like you to take a note of is the fact that this area is already a nice example of Carst terrain. The forests between Ad Pirum and Frigidus are filled with carst valleys (its a hole in various sizes), caves, very rocky, with limited surface water. In the book, author suggests that Ad Pirum's wall was clogged, so eastern army might just as well be thirsty by the time they got to the place of the battle!
 Arbogast was trying to win the favor of the old gods and has placed statue of Jupiter at the edge of the battlefield. On their banners, his army carried images of Hercules. Before he started marching east, Arbogast has boasted how he will turn christian churches into stables and conscript the priests!

Once he reached the positions of the western army, on september 5th, Theodosius did not wait. He has sent his gothic infantry in the attack, supported by any mounted archers that have reached the battlefield by that time! Again and again the valiant goths charged the entrenched franks of Arbogast and over and over again they were repelled. Their lines were thinned by archers, mighty onagers were raining stone on them and multiple attackers were taken down by single, well aimed shots of the dreaded scorpions.  Just when goths thought they might get an upper hand, secret door in palisade opened and western cavalry has charged straight into the gothic flank and back! They had to withdraw!

Arbogast was satisfied, he was sure the eastern army has lost the will to fight. Now, Arbitio, leading the detachment sent to close the escape of eastern army has probably blocked Theodosius in place. He will wait until next morning and he will send his negotiators to Theodosius' camp. Meanwhile, Theodosius was furious. Even more so, when his military commanders have suggested to give up and return in a year or two. In the mean time, Arbitio has betrayed Arbogast and has joined Theodosius! This was a huge morale booster for Theodosius. He has decided the army attacks again next day. Arbogast's troops might be tired from the celebrations of their "victory".  He was praying to christian god, asking for help to win this battle over the infidels. Two of the saints have appeared in his vision, assuring him they would fight for him the next day. How could an army, supported by divine saints lose?

In the next morning, Goths are thirsty for revenge. Eastern troops charge in battle once more. Shortly after the horns have sounded the attacks, divine help is already showing. The wind came rushing down the mountains through the valley! Blowing in eastern troops' backs, it gave their arrows and their javelins extra range, while it threw every missile of western troops right back at their faces! Arbogast' troops were horrified, have the gods indeed abandon them? The events gave Theodosisus an upper hand, he has managed to break through the western palisades and now his own heavily armoured cavalry is rushing through it, striking enemy in their flanks and back! All is lost for those, who were abandoned by the gods and western army broke. Soldiers were running for their lives, all caught and slaughtered. The casualty count was extremely high and has left great impact on western part of the empire! Usurper Eugenius was caught and executed, while Arbogast has fled to the mountains. He was latter found dead at the place where he has commit a suicide, seeing all is lost.

On the other hand, Theodosius has ruled the united Roman empire for the last time. Battle was fought on 5 and 6th september, he had died in January of the next year. After his death, the Roman empire was divided on West and East - first ruled by his 10 year old son Honorious (who has accompanied him in battle at Frigidus) and latter was ruled by his other son, Arcadius. Brave gothic leader, Alaric, who was partly responsible for Theodosius victory, has sacked the Rome himself just 16 years later! This battle was senate and pagan roman world's last try to stop the advance of Christianity, which has since then became what it is today.

Or, as Claudius Claudianus has put it:
Thanks to thee the Alps lay open to our armies [Eastern army], nor did it avail the careful foe [Western army] to cling to fortified posts [Claustra Alpium Iuliarum]. Their ramparts, and the trust they put therein, fell; the rocks were torn away and their hiding-places exposed. Thanks to thine influence the wind of the frozen North overwhelmed the enemy's line with his mountain storms, hurled back their weapons upon the throwers and with the violence of his tempest drove back their spears. Verily God is with thee, when at thy behest Aeolus frees the armèd tempests from his cave, when the very elements fight for thee and the allied winds come at the call of thy trumpets. The Alpine snows grew red with slaughter, the cold Frigidus, its waters turned to blood, ran hot and steaming, and would have been choked with the heaps of corpses had not their own fast-flowing gore helped on its course.
Read more: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian/De_III_Consulatu_Honorii*.html

In the end, I'd like to mention that this overly exposed battle between paganism and christianity was documented by christian writers, so I think we should take it with a pinch of salt (as everything else that has been told), but it adds to the mythology driven world of antiquity feel! Given Eugenious was a christian, there is a possibility this wasn't a religious battle after all and this was only added for the "feel" of it.

Also, the interesting fact about the "divine" wind - it actually does happen. We call it "burja" (bora in english, apparently). It chills you to the bones and it can reach 150 km/h...so thats roughly 90 miles per hour! When we were sleeping in the tents for the first time in military, it was so windy we had to sleep in a truck and stone built dining hall (as we were "camping" next to the shooting range :P). So, my point is...the impact of weather on this battle could really help the way it was said it did. Especially if it was accompanied by a hail!

Here is a nice lecture of British historican on the battle and related stuff. Don't mind the slovene subtitles, they all speak english. If you start watching at around last quarter, you can only listen about the battle itself. 

While this post lacks any nice pictures, I hope it wasn't too dull to read. I've decided to make a hobby post about it (perhaps a scenario idea) some other time.

In other news, I can brag a bit, I've successfully defended my master's thesis (well, it was a 90 minutes chat about things nobody wants to hear me speak about, but them!) so now I should have more time for the hobby while I'm searching for that mandatory devil a first job represents. I really hope this will get me back to sculpting as progress is almost shut down and by now, even I am getting itchy for some painting!

Thanks for looking,


  1. An interesting tale of a battle and era about which I know little. Thanks!

    Also, congratulations on your defence of your thesis.

    1. Thanks! I have to admit this era isn't something that would appeal to me either, at first. But when you think of it, it is an ascent of a cavalry armies and actually a start of the dark ages etc etc :P

  2. Good write-up of a historic piece, the position of the actual battle, as you say, will never be known, but the area is. The photograph of the valley is excellent, but shows what a bleak area it is.

    Congratulations on the thesis defence too (sounds like a chess opening), when do you know when you've passd ?

    1. Thanks Joe. Yeah, I love the photo as well, clearly shows the valley but not the slope they supposedly came from.

      Cheers for congratulations, it was more of a presentation with some questions asked and answered, highly formal, but it wasn't a problem as I was working on that paper since march after all. I've got the grade at the end of answering questions, along with a temporary paper to prove it, so it's all done now. I'm now officially master now, which sounds much more important than it feels to me at this moment :D

  3. Thanks for the history lesson and congrats on the thesis defense.

  4. Sorry it has taken me so long to get round to reading this I will be honest and say I saw how much there was as was daunted. That said I did enjoy the read in the end. I take my hat off to you I know that I could not even attempt to write anything of that length is any language, let alone not my native language,

    I must say big congrats on your thesis, no small task!

    You do raise some interesting points regarding weather and battlefields which as wargamers we do tend not to think about too much. Yet as you point out it can be a very influencing factor.

    1. Haha, no problem Clint, I suppose it did came out a bit longer than I expected...nobody bothers reading that, so kudos for that :D. As for writing things that length, its all I did for past 5 years (well, or 24 to be honest :D), even a 20 or so pages on Terrorism in English, so I can only hope the mistakes don't pop out too hard and thing is readable :P.

      And thanks again, I hope it will pay itself back by end of the year, so I can start saving for another Salute :P.
      Weather is used way too sparingly in games, I agree, but it does make them pretty onesided, I suppose, so people tend to avoid it. Or, perhpas, as it can't be shown on the table...I'd love rainy themed miniatures :D